DOHA, Qatar — In January 2012, Hamas abandoned its ally, Bashar al-Assad, cutting itself loose from the Syrian regime and relocating its headquarters from Damascus. Syrian state media launched a broadside against Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in response, referring to him as "ungrateful and traitorous," and Iran reduced its financing (estimated at $20 to $30 million per year) of the movement. Meanwhile, Meshal now notes that he's "not against the Israelis because they hold a different faith," and championing the virtues of democracy, diversity, and human rights. So, what's gotten into Hamas's chief?
In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, his first face-to-face talk since being re-elected last month, Meshaal explains why he chose to walk away from his benefactors. "[The Assad regime] took the wrong option -- they were wrong about their vision toward the conflict. Not only toward their internal conflict in Syria, but toward the whole Arab Spring," Meshaal told FP. "People aspiring for democracy and freedom should have been dealt with through political arrangements to meet their rightful aspirations. This would have reinforced the power of the country, the bonds between the people and their leadership, and it would have been for the best interest of the country."
To replace his alliances with Syria and Iran, Meshaal built strong ties with rising powers such as Turkey and Qatar -- countries that, far from being international pariahs, have strong working relations with the United States and Europe. The Qatari emir's visit to Gaza in October marked the first blow to international efforts to isolate the Hamas government there, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan soon plans to visit the strip as well.
Meshaal told FP that Hamas "felt a responsibility to extend all advice we can" when protests against the Syrian regime first broke out in March 2011, with the goal of achieving a quick solution to the crisis. Last month, journalist Nicholas Blanford, quoting an anonymous Western source, reported that Hamas had presented Assad with a seven-point program for defusing the crisis, which included open elections and Assad's eventual resignation. In both Meshaal's and the Western source's account, however, Assad ignored Hamas's recommendations.
"After all the efforts we have done with the Syrian leadership, we felt that nobody was listening," Meshaal said. "With the bloody developments in the Syrian Spring, we knew that the Syrian leadership wanted to use Hamas [to bolster its legitimacy]. We had no choice but to respect our beliefs, our principles, our values -- and we felt that after 10 months that we had no choice but to leave."
Meshaal made the case that the Assad regime -- by trying to resolve the conflict through brute military force rather than a political agreement -- paved the way for the violence that grips the country today. "[A political solution] would have spared Syria a lot of misery, a lot of casualties, a lot of the destruction and bloodshed that we see today," he said.
The Israeli-Palestinian arena
Describing his agenda for his new four-year term at the head of Hamas, Meshaal emphasized one issue above all others: The need to end what he described as the "occupation" of the Palestinian people's land, and the "atrocities" being committed against them by Israel.
"[Palestinians] are suffering from the settlements, they are suffering in the detention camps and the prisons of the occupation," Meshaal said. "[We aim] to stop the suffering of our people in Jerusalem, as they are suffering from the Judaization of the city... We want a real peace that would regain the rights for our people."